Serena as Victorine Meurent
It's been awhile since the show has contrasted Serena and Blair as starkly (but sneakily!) as the premiere did. It starts with the concept of Left Bank vs. Right Bank. Blair gets the Right Bank, home to old money and the bourgeois. Serena gets the Left Bank, famous for its “bohemian ambience” and its circles of artists, writers, and intellectuals. S and B literally meet in the middle on neutral territory, at Eleanor and Cyrus’s flat on the Ile Saint-Louis. It’s very Two Queens. Or the White Queen and the Black Queen meeting at the center of the board, if you were a fan of last season's big chess metaphor.
Serena is with a new guy in every shot of her montage; Blair is forever alone. Serena is trying not to think about how she needs to choose between the two "delicious" guys she left behind; Blair is trying not to think about the ex who chose a hotel over her.
First thought: O RLY? But on second thought it actually is weird that Blair loves Manet. His style and choice of subjects (street singers? gypsies? ragpickers? drunks?) were more realist than romantic, and he never considered himself an Impressionist. Degas or Renoir would have been more Blair-like choices. But I think the writers chose Manet because they are using his paintings as a point of reference for Serena — more specifically the paintings featuring his favorite model and muse, Victorine Meurent. She was one of the most sought-after models in 1860s Paris, and Manet's paintings of her scandalized French audiences.
In the leaked script (smh) from 4x01, Serena’s Paris montage contains three references to Manet:
Manet was born in 1832 at No. 5 Rue Bonaparte. We were meant to see Serena pose nude in an artist's studio and literally have lunch on the grass; the painting Blair spends her summer staring at is The Luncheon on the Grass. [When I searched for Serena + Victorine, I found this nifty review of the premiere that casts Blair as Dejeuner's forgotten, bathing nymph and Serena as Victorine, the center of attention. The reviewer even interprets Blair shoving Serena into the fountain as her attempt to recast their roles.] So the writers definitely see Serena as Victorine Meurent, the central figure in Blair's favorite painting. The references that actually made it into the episode are more subtle:
Olympia is Manet’s take on Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Unlike that Venus, Manet’s Olympia is bold and in control of her sexuality. (The painting would have a surprisingly modern sensibility were it not for the racism.) She stares straight out at the audience, no shyness or shame in her gaze. The position of her hand is especially famous. Serena being the one doing the sketching is even bolder, gives her even more control over her sexuality. And check out the sketches of Serena on the wall. Doesn’t the position of her hand look familiar?
Instead of having lunch on the grass, Serena and CUTE GUY have their picnic on the go. Serena is eating grapes, which Manet painted Victorine eating in The Street Singer. Green grapes are also a motif in another of his Victorine paintings, The Railway. (In the very right-hand corner.)
In 4x11, an episode with a bunch of references to 4x01, Serena impresses/scandalizes her classmates by teaching them how to prepare absinthe. Manet’s first painting was The Absinthe Drinker. Absinthe was a popular subject (and a popular muse, I am sure) for Parisian bohemians; Degas and Picasso's paintings of absinthe drinkers are much more famous than Manet's.
It’s really common for directors to draw inspiration from paintings. Norman Buckley, who directs GG on a regular basis, often blogs about how he is inspired by paintings, especially the paintings of Edward Hopper. (That last link even includes Picasso and Degas’s absinthe drinkers.) Back in S1, typicrobots pointed out that Buckley drew inspiration from Manet’s A Bar at Folies-Bergere for a Chuck/Serena scene in 1x13. I think the writers have taken a page out of Buckley’s book, only instead of using Manet’s paintings to frame a shot, they’ve used them to frame Serena and Blair’s characterization, and maybe also Dan and Chuck's.
Muse to Us All vs. Consuming the Classics
From the Dan/Louis parallels I'd been working on: Blair stares at Le dejeuner sur l'herbe, wishing to be Victorine (Serena). Dan stares out his window, thinking about Serena.
I looked for Manet references in Serena's storyline to support the idea that Louis and Dan are being paralleled in Blair's. But there’s a more interesting subtext going on about Serena vs. Blair and maybe also Serena/Chuck (the other absinthe drinker) vs. Dan/Blair. Dan is an artist, which makes him something of an observer. In 2x05 Dan tries to resuscitate his writing by convincing Chuck to take him out so he can “experience the world of Chuck Bass.” In Paris, Blair spends her time reading and in museums, being a spectator of the stories she wants to star in. She gets “lost in a daydream” in front of Dejeuner, “transporting herself to the banks of that far away river.” And while Blair is dreaming, Serena is out living those stories. She’s the star. She’s the muse. She’s the Venus. She’s the girl in Blair’s favorite painting.
It's almost like a commentary on art and those who appreciate it as opposed to those who are its subjects. Dan and Blair are the observers whereas Chuck and Serena are the experiencers. Chuck and Serena are the kinds of people who inspire the art Dan and Blair make and love. Chuck and Serena are even the two characters Dan has written stories about.
Looking back at last season, I’m wondering if the important thing to take away from Dan not making it into Tisch (his total gracelessness when Vanessa did is what stayed with me) is that he lost his grip on who he is as a writer, which is a huge part of his identity. Serena had been the focus of so much of that energy in the past. The look on Dan’s face when he stops and watches Serena at the fountain says a lot about the mixture of awe and rightness she represents to Dan. She is the Victorine to his Manet.
Looking forward, I think Louis telling Blair she is “complicated and beautiful” may foreshadow how Dan will come to see Blair. If the artist/muse/consume dynamic is relevant to what happens between Dan/Serena/Blair, Dan being the artist gives him an interesting agency. And as the consumer of classics, Blair has power over which stories she uses to frame her actions. She's already reading from two scripts: Cinderella and the time-traveling Dark Prince. What Blair has less power over is the role she plays when Serena's added to the mix, and 4x01 was a refresher course on that dynamic. Playing nice means accepting a supporting role, and manipulating a win makes her the villainess instead of the heroine; Blair is always half way to losing lead.
Which is maybe where Dan's agency as the artist/writer comes in? When Dan wrote the script for the Tisch cabaret, he cast Blair as the wicked queen. For Dan/Blair to be real, they *both* have to recast. Dan needs to see Blair as the ~leading lady, as the complicated protagonist instead of the antagonist, as a Victorine instead of a supporting role. And Dan is so not Blair's idea of a potential romantic lead for The Movie of Her Life. I think (hope?) Blair is already interacting with both of these ideas via placeholders (Louis = Dan, Victorine/Manet = Serena/Dan) in the season premiere.
P.S. There’s also the fun coincidence that Manet seems torn between muses in Le dejeuner sur l’herbe; the girl in Blair's favorite painting has the body of Manet's wife and the face of Victorine.
you're waiting for a train...
* JUDGE AWAY, SHAME TURNS ME ON.
While I was looking at all the Louis/Blair caps for my Louis/Dan parallels, the caps of Musee d’Orsay reminded me SO MUCH of Grand Central Station -- the windows, the lights, the clock, the architecture. Turns out that's because Musee d’Orsay used to be a massive train station.
BTW, these scenes are a pack of lies because Le dejeuner sur l‘herbe is in a separate gallery off of the main area. You can see what I mean in this picture. In reality, Leighton would have been facing the Celestial Sphere sculpture whenever she looked in the alleged direction of the painting.
There's a funky Gare du Nord clock in the background of Chuck and Eva's 4x01 arrival in Paris. They show it again in 4x02 when Eva learns the truth about "Henry." Blair meets and says goodbye to Louis with the Orsay museum's clock prominent in the background. When the clock strikes midnight, Louis and Eva turn back into pumpkins, and Henry Prince turns back into an asshole.
Just because. (Oh, Season 1. Always have, always will.)
Earlier I mentioned Manet's The Railway, a painting of Victorine Meurent at Gare Saint-Lazare. The station’s architecture also inspired Monet. Even though all the train scenes were filmed at Gare du Nord, the blocking of Chuck and
There's a ~holy trinity~ of famous artworks of Gare Saint-Lazare, the first two being Manet and Monet's. The last one is Behind Gare Saint-Lazare, probably the most famous photograph of renowned French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. I think his photos are also referenced in 4x02?
The Lonely Boy version of View from the Towers of Notre Dame?
Unlike the references to Manet in 4x01, the references to HCB in 4x02 seem strictly visual. It's just weird that there's this preponderance of possible references to artists with famous works of a particular train station, that Chuck and Eva arrive in Paris by train, that Blair stops Chuck from ~departing her world forever~ at a train station in the most memorable scene of the Paris episodes, that Blair meets her prince at a place that famously used to be a train station... Grand Central in the finale, Y/N?
It's frustrating how Gossip Girl can be so clever in a bunch of ways that ultimately don't matter and so disappointing in the ways that mean EVERYTHING.
VANESSA (on Dan's book):)
A certain someone might actually like how she's painted. And I'm not talking about Serena.
People like me don't write books. They're written about.